There is growing recognition of the important role universities play in civic society. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement describe the ‘engaged university’ as an institution which prioritises engagement with communities as central to its core strategy. The emphasis now is on moving beyond ‘pseudo-engagement’ into ‘authentic engagement’, defined by the TEFCE (Towards a European Framework for Community in Engagement in higher Education) report as a meaningful and mutually beneficial process for both universities and the communities with which they work.[i]
Academic research is by no means exempt from this responsibility, and research groups are arguably in a position to play a pivotal role in making connections between the wider community and higher education institutions. As an academic research group active since 2017, we reflect on how the Education for Social Justice Research Group (Ed4SJ) is developing authentic community engagement at London South Bank University.
The Education for Social Justice Research Group was initially formed of members of the Education Division including academic staff and doctoral students, as well as colleagues across the university. Over the last four years our membership has grown to include external education researchers and practitioners from a range of contexts. From the outset our aim was to be inclusive in our membership, valuing the depth of experience and wide-ranging perspectives of those who join. We consider the teaching and learning that takes place in a community hall, or during a summer music programme to be just as valuable as a source of research as that which takes place in a school classroom or university lecture theatre. Our aim is to push against any notion of a hierarchy of education practice and instead to explore education across such divides.
Developing Engagement Activities
Our commitment to research informed practice reflects the value of mutuality through knowledge exchange activities which benefit both the communities and the university. Our research projects intend to support our community partners in reflection and development through a grounding in both the contexts of practice and academic theories. Through this process we too are developing both as researchers and as education practitioners grounded in the real contexts that we have the opportunity of researching. The resulting reports and articles are therefore created with the intent to be valuable tools for transformation in both community and university contexts.
Our annual conference Education Across the Divide and our seminar series are key sites of engagement which provide further opportunity for knowledge exchange. We ensure that such events reflect our core values of inclusion and collaboration by sharing the work of practitioners and researchers from a diverse range of education contexts, and where possible prioritising the voices of marginalised groups. The conference is also an opportunity for developing the skills and capacity of new researchers alongside more established researchers, where lived experience and insider perspectives are valued as equally as professional practice or research. Over the years, the conferences have become a foundation for building networks and partnerships both in relation to the research group and extending beyond it.
Centring Societal Needs
At the core of everything we do, is our commitment to working towards social justice, and our belief in the potential of education as a tool for both challenging social injustice and moving towards a socially just world for all. This values-ledapproach to partnerships and research, requires us to consider throughout the process, who our work is for and how it can address societal needs. Whilst there are often competing motivations behind conducting research, from individuals/funders/institutions, wherever possible we aim to centre the needs of the communities who are engaged in the research activity and most likely to be impacted by it and its outcomes.
We employ a participatory approach through our research methodology, which aims to prioritise the voices of marginalised groups and individuals as co-producers of knowledge, with the intention that the research we conduct is of benefit to participants. This approach requires us to be flexible and to collaborate closely with partners to create bespoke research projects rather than imposing a standard structure. Although this is something which we have achieved in part, it is a challenging aspect of the work which requires an investment of time and resources not always available within the limitations of projects, and we continue to develop our understanding and application in this area.
This work is important not just in meeting University and external targets and measures, but for addressing social inequalities and meeting the needs of the communities within which these institutions exist. From our experience we have learnt that it requires time and resource to grow and sustain authentic partnerships which move beyond ‘pseudo engagement’ [i]. Developing ‘authentic engagement’ with communities which is meaningful and mutually beneficial is a learning journey that we are committed to as a research group and will continue to reflect on and expand as a foundational element of our work.
 Farnell, T., Veidemane, A., Westerheijden, D. (2020). Assessing the Feasibility of Developing a Framework for Community Engagement in European Higher Education. Zagreb: Institute for the Development of Education